A few weeks ago, I penned the article “No Superstars, No Problem?”. While it was written to praise what was mostly an AHL line up for overperforming and explaining that a team that shows up and goes to work is a team Pittsburgh deserves, it was also meant as a subtle explanation that this is what the future of the Penguins will be. Would this team be sitting last in the Metro with a 4-3-3 record if Crosby, Malkin, Letang, and Rust weren’t in the mix of injuries and covid cases that are tearing through the team? Probably not. However, this is the end of an era for the Penguins. As this new era is foreshadowed, it’s time for most Pen’s fans to look themselves in the mirror and seriously contemplate if they’re fans of hockey, the Penguins, or winning.
To be fair, across the NHL landscape, Pens fans aren’t looked on fondly. They aren’t the worst fans to deal with, but there is a distain. Part of this is related to having Crosby, part is envy of winning 3 cups in 9 years, but a greater part is how Pens fans act. I can speak ill of Pens fans, but because I am one and live around them. I’m 28. I started watching hockey somewhere around the year 2001. This means I’ve witnessed my team in the playoffs 75% of my fandom, and I barely remember what 2002-2006 was like. Essentially, all I know is playoffs and Stanley Cups…. success no matter how you slice it.
Let’s also take a moment and understand that while I’m not “old” by any stretch, many of the fans that talk about the Pens and spend money on tickets are in the 17-40 range. If I thought I only new success, there are Pens fans out there that have absolutely ZERO idea what it’s like to not make the playoffs. This is were the attitude of Pens fans come from. This generation, even my generation, act like the Pens WILL always be in the playoffs and win the Stanley Cup. Anyone that says differently (even professionals that cover the team for years or know way more than the average fan) is immediately speaking heresy and should be banned. Admittedly, I was in that group through the 2019 season. But in 2019, I saw the light, I looked in a mirror and realized that I can either be a fan of the team or a fan of winning (both are mutually exclusive. Ask Coyote, Senator, Flyers and Vancouver fans if you don’t believe me). I decided I wanted to be a fan of the team, win OR lose.
Unfortunately many of the Pens fans in that 17-40 age group went all in on winning. This year will be a gentle preview of what the future will be for the Penguins: The stars are mostly absent in their lineup, the team is ‘okay’ with flashes of “really good”, while they were a coin flip to make the playoffs before the season, the Pens are trending in the wrong direction 10 games in.
Even if the Pens somehow claw their way into the last playoff spot, the writing will have been on the wall. Malkin and Letang are almost assuredly not on the roster next season, their prospect bank is pretty much empty, so are the available draft picks. Guentzel is a gem, but has underperformed this season, they jury is still out on Kapanen, Rust could be on the way out around the trade deadline, I could go on. Don’t get me wrong, there is talent on this Pens team and every dynasty goes into dark periods after awhile. I don’t think the Pens will just fall into oblivion and never be heard of again, but the dark period will be at least 4 or 5 years (on the low end) once Crosby retires.
Inevitably, every team has band wagon and fair-weather fans and when things go bad we find out who is really behind the team. The Penguins have been a great franchise for a better part of 30 years, the city of Pittsburgh is a great place to be as well (if you haven’t, please visit. I’ll give you great tips!). Just like the city had a dark period after the mills closed, the Pens are about to enter their own dark period after immense success. Pens fans really have to take some time to reflect on if they are fans of a team or fans of winning. The Pens almost left before, if too many fans want instant success over the journey of a team, it may come to that point again. It may be unlikely, but in the post-pandemic world, nothing can be ruled out.